Classical Film Reviews · Film Reviews

Classic Film Review: Peter Pan [1953]

This is Disney’s take on Peter Pan: The Boy Who Wouldn’t Grow Up’ a 1904 play and 1911 novel by J M Barrie. It’s a tale of magic, imagination and adventure but occasionally violent and disturbing in its depiction of that happens when children are left to fend for themselves. This is no Lord of the Flies however! Don’t panic. Although, considering the popularity of The Hunger Games, perhaps that is what you are after?

Unlike that film, there are some hugely dated sexist and racist themes and stereotypes and definitely no strong female lead. Wendy Darling and her younger brothers are given the opportunity of a lifetime when semi-lovable, flying rascal Peter Pan spirits them away to Never Never Land. They meet mermaids, Indians, fairies and face a confrontation with the dastardly pirate Captain Hook!

As with other adaptations, both Mr Darling and Captain Hook are animated with the same face and actor Hans Conried voices both characters.

Peter Pan’s opening song, ‘Second Star to the Right’ is powerful and sets the tone for a magical film that upholds the Disney tenets of magic, adventure and family. The song was originally intended for 1951’s Alice in Wonderland but wasn’t used. Voice actress Kathryn Beaumont, who voiced Alice, appears here as Wendy and the Disney Style that ties together all of the studio’s films is plain to see. Characters are drawn and animated to fit the Disney canon- although I’m sure six decades ago they weren’t thinking about everything matching on the shelves at the Disney store.


Well-bred Wendy is a duplicate of prim Snow White; The pirate Smee is Happy the dwarf and Baby Michael is a talking Dopey. Peter is reminiscent of the naughty boys in Pinocchio. Tinker Bell is as coquettish and disturbingly sexy as the centaurs in Fantasia and Captain Hook is every Disney villain you’ve ever seen.

But it doesn’t hurt the film at all. It is a fun and pleasant film with not too much whimsy. It’s even admirably dark, with Hook shooting a man for singing and real peril for our leads. If you love Disney then this is probably one of your favourites. In fact, if you love animation at all then you’ll probably greatly enjoy it…

But it’s so problematic!

From the ‘What Makes The Red Man Red’ song and the depiction of Big Chief and his tribe to the way every female character is so jealous over Peter’s affections she becomes homicidal! Peter complains that “girls talk too much” and Captain Hook alludes to jealous girls being easy to trick.

The main instigator for violence is Tinkerbelle who torments Wendy throughout the entire film and plots her murder. She has no problems openly admitting she wants to kill Wendy- a far cry from her personality in the Disney Fairies Series!

The mermaids also attack Wendy due to jealousy and are just as frank about their motives. Wendy might be a bland character, a stand-in for the mother figure the children all crave, but she’s a good person who is constantly assaulted by other women!

These cultural relics weren’t seen as a problem when the movie came out, but they certainly are now. Peter comes across as cold and unlikable because he lets Wendy take the abuse for the situation he has created. Pan never once apologises for his actions or those the people he leads.

None of the women in this film are written to be anything other that catty or matronly. What exactly are girls meant to take from this film? Wendy runs away from the responsibility that is being forced on her at home, only to find herself in a cruel world where women compete for a man and literally try to kill their competition!

I love old films and I love this film. It’s sexist and it’s racist but I don’t think that necessarily means we shouldn’t watch works with those issues or show them to our children, we just need to be aware of the context and learn from it!